Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 23 May 2012
Australian Electoral Commission
- Senator John Faulkner, Labor Senator for New South Wales
- Senator Scott Ryan, Liberal Senator for Victoria
- Mr Ed Killesteyn, Electoral Commissioner
- Mr Paul Pirani, Chief Legal Officer, Australian Electoral Commission
Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the AEC rarely compare party and donor submissions to follow up when there are discrepancies or they fail to lodge returns. Is that the case; and, if it is, is lack of resources the reason you are not in a position to follow up on these discrepancies?
Mr Pirani: We have developed a system whereby we are now able to do matching of the various returns that we receive. After we received the 2010-11 financial year returns, we matched the donor returns with the political party returns and we are have almost concluded the number of inquiries that we are pursuing in relation to discrepancies between those two sets of returns. Now, it is difficult to match the returns, primarily due to the operation of the thresholds, but we do do a matching. My team have recently concluded the initial part of the task of writing out to both donors and political parties, asking them to explain the differences.
Senator RHIANNON: That is a fairly significant shift from how it used to be, I understand?
Mr Pirani: We always had processes in place. It was a time-consuming and resource intensive task. They have now done some programming work in the systems so that we are able to do some inquiries and some matching and to drill down into the information so that we are able to identify mismatches between returns. When we first ran it, we were looking at over 6,000 lines of data where we had some issues. My last advice is that we were down to of the order of 50.
Senator RHIANNON: That has come about because there are more returns online?
Mr Pirani: That is part of the issue. In addition, with the new systems we have, we are getting a lot of support from parties—and some donors—in relation to putting in the returns.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you looking to revamp the website? As we have discussed previously, would you be looking to provide the public with the opportunity to search by donor or party across years?
Mr Pirani: At the moment, we put the actual returns on the website. We have not done the work yet to make it easy to do searches and matches across years et cetera. The actual returns are there, but we have not been able to give it the drill-down facility we have ourselves on the systems which underlie the databases within the AEC.
Senator RHIANNON: I was interested in why that has not occurred, because it appears that it would not really be an issue of resources—considering that the Democracy for Sale website provides that capability on a shoestring budget and that they are drawing the data directly from the AEC. On that site you can do searches by donor, by party and by category across years. Is it that it has not been considered or is there another reason that that facility has not been provided?
Mr Killesteyn: I think the first part of any schema like that is to get returns lodged electronically. We have been investing significantly over the last 18 months to develop the capacity for parties and others to lodge their disclosures electronically. That is the first step in the process. Unless you have it electronically, you are involved in a system with large amounts of data entry—which is time consuming, costly and probably not terribly effective, because it relies on someone else putting information into the system.
Senator RHIANNON: Just on that point: the Democracy for Sale website takes its data directly from the AEC—and that was prior to any electronic lodgement—and they have been able to set up that facility. And that has been done on a shoestring budget. So it is not that the data needs to be entered.
Mr Killesteyn: I do not know what they have done; I have not seen it myself. I will be interested to see what techniques they have used. I would not like to be drawn on whether it can be done on a shoestring budget or not. I can probably claim that we are on a shoestring budget as well.
Senator RHIANNON: Everything is relative in this world. We might move on to the issue of polling places. What do you do to stop polling places discriminating against certain parties? There has been an example at the Gymea Catholic church hall where there was, I understand, discrimination against the Sex Party putting up posters and having other materials. How do you go about guaranteeing that the polling places you use will be non-discriminatory, particularly with regard to entry, posters et cetera.
Mr Killesteyn: I would like some information on the particular allegation about the polling place.
Senator RHIANNON: I thought you would have received a complaint. It was in one of the submissions—a submission to JSCEM, I think.
Mr Killesteyn: May I take that on notice, please? I am not aware of the incident.
Senator RHIANNON: That is fine. I notice that the New South Wales Electoral Commission, when publishing the results for lower house seats, only provides the coalition versus Labor, even in the fourteen seats where Labor did not finish in the top two and the coalition easily won. But it is not between the coalition and Labor; it is between the coalition and somebody else. That is clearly misleading. What is the AEC's position on this? Do you go down the path of providing a true two-candidate preferred result for each House of Representatives seat, or do you go with how many have viewed the world for a long time, which is that it is always between Labor and the coalition?
Mr Killesteyn: We publish two-party preferred results.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, that is what I am after.
Mr Killesteyn: If that is the answer to your question then that is what we publish.
Senator RHIANNON: I know you do the two-party preferred. I am just trying to ascertain whether the two-party preferred is an accurate two-party preferred, or is it like what they do in the New South Wales Electoral Commission, where the two-party preferred is not necessarily the preferred.
Senator FAULKNER: Mr Killesteyn, you publish two-candidate preferred.
Senator RHIANNON: But it is called two-party preferred.
Senator FAULKNER: It is not called two-party preferred at all. For example, in Mr Katter's or in Mr Windsor's seat it is two-candidate preferred.
Senator RYAN: In Melbourne they do both—two-candidate preferred and two-party preferred.
Senator FAULKNER: I think—and no doubt Ms Neilson will be able to explain this in great detail—the difficulty comes on election night when a decision has to be made, and sometimes these are extremely difficult decisions to make on the night about individual polling booths and which particular candidates of those in a field you are going to throw to. You can only do best endeavours here, and every now and again you get one wrong, of course. Parties get these things wrong and electoral commissions get them wrong, because at the end of the day these are in the hands of electors. But your published results are two-candidate preferred counts, although usually they are counts between two major parties; but that is not always the case.
Mr Killesteyn: Senator, I have just been advised that we do publish two-party preferred results by division. We possibly publish two-candidate preferred as well. On election night, you are absolutely right, sometimes we—
Senator FAULKNER: That is the point I am trying to make—
Senator RHIANNON: Madam Chair, I am really interested in what Senator Faulkner has to stay but I am also interested in what the AEC has to say, because I think it is fair that he is allowed to answer the question.
Mr Killesteyn: I think what I will do is take it on notice and give you the precise publication of what we do both on election night and then after election night as the results are confirmed.
Senator FAULKNER: But you will find when you do that, Mr Killestyen, that inevitably sometimes mistakes are made. The AEC and divisional returning officers generally check with parties and candidates and best endeavours are made to get it right.
Mr Killesteyn: Indeed. We make a best judgement as to how to throw the preferences according to the candidates. On election night, I think, in 2010, we had three or four that we classified as maverick—that is, they went a different way from what we had predicted. In those cases, we shut the count down because it would be misleading, and then we try to retrieve it later once we have determined which are the two candidates.
Senator FAULKNER: For the record, it is not right about the two-party preferred candidates, because sometimes we have situations where the parties do not both contest electorates. I can assure you that that is the case, particularly in by-elections.